You wait for one Elgar and three come along

You wait for one Elgar and three come along


norman lebrecht

April 29, 2019

Of all the if-onlys, mine is the time-traveller’s wish to have heard Gustav Mahler conduct Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, as he did with the New York Philharmonic in November-December 1910.

Failing that, the next best things on record are Elgar’s own performance with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1926 and Arturo Toscanini’s with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1935.

For reasons too numerous to list in this post, I am not a huge admirer of Toscanini’s handling of introspective late-romantic works and the BBC recording bears out many of my reservations.

But I may have to change my mind. Somm Recordings have come across an unblemished Toscanini broadcast of the Enigma in November 1949 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. While hard-driven at times, it comes over as one of the most reflective interpretations you could wish to hear – more controlled than the composer, who could be a tad indulgent, and more emotional than other stiff British upper-lips. This is a staggering performance with an orchestra of virtuosos and a passion for the music that shines through at every bar.

photo: Bob Pembleton

And there’s more on the album – a sensational performance of the Elgar cello concerto by Gregor Piatigorsky and the NY Philharmonic and Artur Rodzinski’s unreleased account of Falstaff. It seems Elgar used to be big news in New York.

Sample here.


  • Jochum says:

    there is an amazing recording of Enigma Variations with Eugen Jochum and SO of the Bayerische Rundfunk. very deep.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      One of the best I ever heard was NDR with Schmidt-Isserstedt

    • mathias broucek says:

      I’m a huge fan of Jochum and would love to hear that. How does it compare to his LPO version?

      The BRSO is good at English music (most music, to be fair). There are excellent recordings of RVW 6 with Barbirolli and Colin Davis

  • Jack says:

    Monteux with the LSO in 1959 is classic in my book. I first heard when I was 14 when I had no real sense of anything, but it stopped me in my tracks. Over the years I revisited it with the same result. Memorable!

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Mahler was a sick man by 1910. That doesn’t mean his “Enigma” wouldn’t have been really good. However, also keep in mind that he would have had less rehearsal time that he would have been used to in Europe. One thing that can be objectively stated, he certainly wouldn’t have had a pipe organ for the end of “Enigma” (in my book, that makes a big difference).